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Taxi driver-turned-playwright Ishy Din: ‘I wrote on a laptop in the cab in-between jobs’

Growing up Middlesborough-born playwright Ishy Din didn’t know it was even an option to become a playwright, but now, his third show, Approaching Empty, is about to be staged at Kilburn’s Kiln Theatre

Ishy Din has had a lot of jobs. The Middlesbrough playwright ran a video store, a furniture shop and a restaurant. He’s done stints in retail, warehousing and clerical work. And he’s spent a lot of time driving cabs.

“I’m a really rubbish businessman,” he says. “I left school in 1985 to could-do-better reports and this cycle began of me opening a business, it failing miserably, me going on the cabs to pay off my debts and get some money together, then I’d open another business.”

It wasn’t until he was 30 that Din discovered writing, the occupation that’s driven him ever since. Approaching Empty [1], opening at Kilburn’s Kiln Theatre later this month, will be his third full-length stage play.

It all started with a radio advert he heard in 2010, when Din was driving a taxi after his latest business flop. “We’d just bought our first computer and I heard an advert on BBC Radio 5 Live looking for scripts for radio plays with a sporting theme,” he says. “I thought: ‘I know, I’ll use that machine to enter this competition’.

“I wrote this story about two young Pakistani kids who go to watch Middlesbrough play football for the first time, expecting it to get thrown in the bin. But fantastically, six weeks later, they phoned me up and said they really loved it,” Din says. “That was the first time I thought I could be a writer.”

Kammy Darweish and Maanuv Thiara in rehearsals for Approaching Empty
Kammy Darweish and Maanuv Thiara in rehearsals for Approaching Empty

Growing up in the North East, the youngest of six siblings in a Kashmiri family and the only one to be born in the UK, a career in creative writing never seemed a possibility for Din.

“People from Middlesbrough didn’t become writers,” he says. “People from Middlesbrough became welders. It never crossed my mind. It never occurred to me that I had the ability to do it, and I was allowed to do it.”

“I find it frustrating that theatre is still largely seen as a white, middle-class pursuit,” he continues. “If wider society doesn’t come to theatre, then theatre needs to come to wider society. It’s really important that we get out into the communities that surround our buildings and build those bridges.”

He adds: “We have to be more active in letting people, especially young people, know this is an option. Like I say, I thought I wasn’t allowed to do it.”

Q&A: Ishy Din

What was your first job (theatrical)?
Writing my short piece £1.50 to Pay, for the BANG! competition, with Tamasha, BBC Writers Room and Oldham Coliseum.

What was your first job (non-theatrical)?
Owning my own video rental shop.

What is your next job?
Writing a screenplay called PAAK Utd.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s a long, hard road.

Who or what is your biggest influence?
Aside from family, meeting and talking to people.

If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have done?
I shudder to think.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, it’s bad luck being superstitious.

It was a struggle for Din to find work as a writer at first, but a three-week writing workshop run by theatre company Tamasha eventually led to his first major commission: Snookered [2], a comedy drama featuring four Muslim men in a Middlesbrough pool hall that ran to acclaim at London’s Bush Theatre in 2012.

“Snookered was written in the cab between jobs,” says Din. “I bought myself a laptop that I used to keep under the driver’s seat. I used to deliberately work the graveyard shift, so I would get time in between jobs to furiously type away in my cab, coming up with ideas for this play.”

Following Snookered, another full-length play, Wipers [3], about the first Asian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross, premiered at Leicester Curve in 2016. After that Din collaborated on two seasons of the Channel 4 drama Ackley Bridge. In 2018, his work Taxi Tales was part of BBC2’s Performance Live series.

Cabbing, according to Din, gave him plenty of inspiration for work. “I made a calculation one night that I had something like 160,000 conversations in my cab,” he says. “That vast experience of life gives you an ear for how people talk, ideas for characters, little stories, little incidents that you remember and feed into your work. Writers are magpie-like. Life is our raw material.”

Jassa Ahluwalia and Waleed Akhtar in Wipers at Leicester Curve. Photo: Pamela Raith
Jassa Ahluwalia and Waleed Akhtar in Wipers at Leicester Curve. Photo: Pamela Raith

Approaching Empty is the second in a trilogy of stage plays that started with Snookered. They are all about “Asian men in confined spaces”, according to Din, and they are intended to investigate the role of male Asian immigrants in society.

“Snookered was about young men born in the UK,” he says. “Approaching Empty is about Asian men who came to the UK as teenagers, with a clear idea of what they’d left behind. The third play, as yet untitled, will be about older men who meant to return home, but for many reasons, have ended up spending the rest of their lives here.”

Approaching Empty draws on Din’s own life experience. It features two middle-aged men in a Middlesbrough cab office, and is set in the period of time between Margaret Thatcher’s death and her funeral.

“On one level, it’s about two lifelong friends and a business deal,” he says. “But it’s also about post-industrial northern Britain, and the repercussions of Thatcher’s economic policies. It’s about friendship and community and family.”

He continues: “Thatcher was a seminal person, particularly for Pakistani communities in the north, because our raison d’etre was the factories, and she closed them down.

“That created two types of people: the entrepreneurs, some of whom were successful, and those that weren’t that way inclined, who turned to takeaways and taxis to make a living, like me.”

CV: Ishy Din

Born: Middlesbrough, 1969
Training: Writing workshops and residentials
Awards: Best new play for Snookered at the Manchester Theatre Awards, 2012;
Best production for Wipers at the Asian Media Awards, 2016
Landmark productions: Snookered, Bush Theatre (2012); Wipers, Leicester Curve (2016)